THE ABBOTTS: J. W. Wuppermann (An honorary Abbott)

J. W. Wuppermann


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The origins of the competing angostura bitters – always pointedly asserted to be the only true and proper “Angostura Bitters” – were much more romantic and glamorous than C W Abbott’s, stemming from revolutionary South America at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. One Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German doctor, born in 1796 and, according to legend, present among the military physicians who tended the Prussian wounded at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, thereafter emigrated to Venezuela in 1820 to aid Simon Bolivar in his fight to win freedom from Spain. He traveled to Bolivar’s headquarters at Angostura on the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Bolivar appointed him Surgeon General of the military hospital army at Angostura. The following year, after Bolivar had liberated Venezuela, he moved on to carry the fight to other Spanish colonies, but Siegert remained in Angostura. While tending his patients in 1824, Siegert developed a medicinal tonic. In 1830, he opened a distillery in Angostura to manufacture the tonic that he was now exporting to Trinidad and England. In 1850, he resigned his commission in the Venezuelan army to devote his energies entirely to the burgeoning tonic business. By 1867, he had brought his sons into the distillery, and when he died in 1870, he had established both a flourishing international business as well as a dynasty.



As his trade expanded, Siegert apparently seems to have formed a bond with another German expatriate, one Adolph Christian Wuppermann, who had spent time in Angostura as well, and ran an import-export business which maintained offices at the port city of Hamburg in Germany. A. C’s son, George Diogracia Wuppermann, was born in Angostura in 1838, trained in his father’s offices in Hamburg, and by 1863 had set himself up in international trade at Port-of-Spain, the capital of the British Carribean island colony of Trinidad. As well as acting as the German counsel in Trinidad, one of the other roles he immediately assumed was to act as distribution agent on behalf of the Siegert family tonic business. Later, in 1875, because of continuing political instability in Venezuela, the Siegerts relocated their entire business from Angostura to Port-of-Spain, possibly at G D Wuppermann’s suggestion.





 Both the Siegerts and Wuppermann were expanding their horizons. To enlarge the company’s business and open new markets, J G B Siegert’s eldest son, Carlos, exhibited the family’s bitters in London, Paris, and Vienna in Europe, where he won medals, and even traveled to such far-flung shores as Australia and the United States. Mark Twain seems to have been an early American admirer of the bitters after he tasted them in London, even writing a letter to his wife to stock up on them in anticipation of his return from a speaking tour. G D Wuppermann also must have been involved in the push into the American market. In 1870, he married Josephine Wright Hancox, whose father, Joseph Wright Hancox, already wealthy from the steamship business, underwrote Wuppermann’s importing business in New York City under the name J W Hancox. The young Wuppermanns stepped right into fashionable American society. The new Mrs Wuppermann’s sister had earlier married the brother of E A Harriman, the railroad baron, and the new Wuppermanns were privileged to be married by E A’s father, the Rev Orlando Harriman. Sometime around 1876, G D Wuppermann changed the name of his business to J W Wuppermann, retaining his wife and father-in-law’s initials. While the bitters were continued to be manufactured by J G B Siegert & Sons in Trinidad, after that date they were marketed in the United States by J W Wuppermann, and either Siegert or Wuppermann was perpetually engaging in battles to protect the brand name. While Siegert never applied a cancel directly to U.S. proprietary revenues, the Wuppermann “J W W” initials do appear on the battleship revenues.



 WUPPERMANN COVERS – 1895 and circa 1930

Although the Siegerts and the Wuppermanns never seemed to have actually intermarried, one of G D Wuppermann’s children did bear Siegert among his middle names. And what a prolific progenitor G D Wuppermann was! There were eleven Wuppermann babies, most of whom survived into adulthood. The brother who bore the Siegert middle name not only traced a notable acting career as an undergraduate Columbia University, but also was generally regarded as a budding poet and scholar. Sadly, he died violently as U.S. Army intelligence officer in occupied Germany in 1919. His younger brother, acting under the stage name of Ralph Morgan, was a founder of the Screen Actors Guild, the union which to this day represents actors. However, the most famous of this clan was the youngest, Francis Philip Wuppermann, who followed his brother into show business, and, under his stage name, Frank Morgan, is forever beloved by any child who has ever seen the 1939 movie the Wizard of Oz as the slightly loopy Wizard himself.





In the long bitter “bitters war” between the Siegert/Wuppermann clan and the Abbotts, the Siegerts inevitably were the attackers. They alleged that their bitters were the true “Angostura Bitters” because the were manufactured at Angostura, Venezuela. The Siegerts brought the first battle of their campaign directly to the Abbotts by suing them in Maryland asking that the courts prohibit the Abbotts from advertising their bitters as “Angostura Bitters” on the grounds that the Abbott’s advertising misled people into buying their “Angostura Bitters” when they really meant to buy the genuine “Angostura Bitters” made by Siegerts.

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Their strategy and their suit misfired. They should have known better than to sue on the defendants’ home turf. The Maryland courts looked at the label on the Siegerts’ bottle and opined if the Siegerts were trying to prevent confusion, their own label actually engendered it. First, the Maryland court endorsed the Abbott’s argument that no one can claim exclusive use of a generally recognized geographic called location, like Angostura, Venezuela. In addition, it found that although the Siegerts called their Bitters “Angostura Bitters,” Angostura was by then known as Ciudad Bolivar, so the location itself was mis-identified. It further concluded that even if Angostura still existed, the bitters by then were not manufactured in Angostura, Venezuela, but rather in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, another misstatement. Next, it found that the Siegerts’ use of J G B’s signature to prove genuineness was disingenuous because it implied that J G B was in charge when he had been dead since 1870. Last, and most significantly, it pointed out that others bitters manufacturers advertised their bitters as Angostura bitters because the bitters themselves contained angostura bark, or the bitter bark of trees in the rue family native to South America, which in addition to being an old, recognized and respected folk medicine, lent their name to the region. Curiously, the Siegerts never alleged that their bitters actually contained angostura bark, which might have given them some plausible reason for calling them angostura bitters.


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Having failed in Maryland, and, after modifying their label to meet the objections of the Maryland courts, the Siegerts moved the battle to New York State, since they maintained their own offices in New York City, and again brought suit to enjoin the Abbotts from selling their bitters as Angostura Bitters. The first judge who heard their request to stop the Abbott’s marketing practices agreed that the Abbotts should be barred from using that name, but on appeal, the reviewing court found that Angostura was a regional name, and reversed the trial judge. In 1894, the Abbotts mailed a double postcard to their customers summarizing their litigation victory on the outbound flap, and soliciting their customers’ orders on the return flap of the same card.  The Siegerts tried several more times, variously naming Abbott’s distributors as defendants, to attain sole masterly of the Angostura Bitters appellation, but were simply unable to convince the courts that the title was singular to Siegert, instead of a geographical location name which anyone from the region had equal right to utilize.

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Possibly because of its difficulty establishing its brand superiority in the United States, J G B Siegert & Sons always kept its manufacturing operations off-shore. When Carlos Siegert died in 1903, his younger brothers Alfredo and Luis took over control of the Siegert company. Alfredo became purveyor of bitters to the King of Prussia in 1904, to the King of Spain in 1907, and to the King of England in 1912, and the company has added royal endorsements at every opportunity since then. The company formed itself as an English corporation in 1912 and changed its name to Angostura Bitters Limited in 1921.



In the United States, the American Medical Association (AMA) finally took a hard slam at Angostura Bitters when the Wuppermann agency ran an ad in 1922 claiming that a late AMA Vice-President had testified in court that the Angostura Bitters had medical efficacy. The full page denunciation of the Bitters, published in the AMA’s Journal issue of September 23, 1922, made certain corrections to the ad which changed its meaning quite significantly, to wit, that the testimony came from a 1905 court proceeding, further, that the testifier had been a patent medicine nostrum producer himself, that the closest he had come to the leadership of the AMA was that he had held the fourth Vice-Presidency in the AMA thirty-six years earlier and, to boot, had, in fact, been dead for the last nine years. Unfazed by the AMA’s blast, the Wuppermann agency seems to have welcomed the role of its bitters as a cocktail mixer in the era of Prohibition, by incorporating and adding an Angostura to its name at some point, perhaps as early as 1925. Run by G D Wuppermann until his death in 1915, that company continued under his widow, Josephine, until her death in 1936, and then under their son, Adolph, who died less than a year after his mother. The American corporation then began to bring outsiders into the management, made a public offering of its stock in 1937, and built a new headquarters and plant in Elmhurst, Queens in New York City in 1957. It also published a number of drink mixing guides and cookbooks during this period to promote sale of the bitters.

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                   DRINK RECEIPE BOOKS

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1948 AD

The event that appears finally to have disrupted the balance between the English manufacturer and its American distributor, is that, in the 1950s, Angostura -Wuppermann, the American distributor, tried to buy Angostura Bitters Limited, the English manufacturer, and transfer the manufacturing operations out of Trinidad. That bid was thwarted by Trinidad & Tobago’s then Prime Minister, Eric Williams, who offered Limited’s shareholders enough to dissuade them from accepting Angostura-Wuppermann’s bid. After the 1950s (and perhaps that hostile bid against the producer of its goods), Angostura-Wuppermann disappeared from prominence, although the corporation existed at least through the end of the 1960s. In 1992, the English manufacturing company streamlined its name to Angostura Limited, and in 1997 it was purchased by a liquor distribution corporation headquartered in Scotland today known as C L World Brands. In 2008, that company’s financial profligacy briefly caused some minor economic palpitations concerning the Angostura brand’s survival, but the very large global corporation seems to have extracted itself from that peril and still manufactures its Angostura Bitters today. They can be purchased virtually at any liquor store or on the web.


© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014



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